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Protecting Libyan Cultural Heritage

December 22, 2015

Sabratha Libya

During the Cairo Conference last May, the former Libyan Minister of Culture and Civil Society, H.E. Habib Mohammed al-Amin, gave a moving speech on the importance of protecting Libyan heritage for future generations. Mr. al-Amin, whose graduate study specialized in classical archaeology, is also an accomplished poet and has long advocated national and human rights issues. His testimony is a plea for the future of Libyan heritage and encapsulates the human effect of destroying cultural patrimony.

For over a year, Libya has been ravaged by civil war and political instability that has rocked the foundations of the nation’s government, now divided between Tobruk and Tripoli. In addition, ISIS affiliate organizations have moved into the country and recently published a manifesto outlining their objectives to destroy the archaeological and cultural heritage of Libya. This heritage is now at high risk of the systematic destruction, looting, and trafficking that has transpired in Iraq and Syria.

On December 10, 2015, ISIS militia besieged the 2nd century CE Roman city of Sabratha. The ancient city, home of a magnificent and immense late 3rd century amphitheater, also contains temples for Egyptian deities and a Christian basilica from the time of Justinian I. The future of this unique collection of monuments that stand testament to Sabratha’s rich cultural heritage is under attack. Libyan archaeological and heritage sites are difficult to defend, and the loss would be irreplaceable.

Five days after the siege, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) released the Emergency Red List of Libyan Cultural Objects at Risk, the 15th in its Red List series. The purpose of the List is to provide a guide for customs officials, police forces, art dealers, and museums to identify potentially looted antiquities coming from Libya. The List was created by a team of international experts, and is funded by the United States Department of State. Though not exhaustive, the List includes vulnerable artifacts such as rock art, figurines and sculptures in stone, metal, and ceramic, glass and semi-precious stones, coins, and accessories such as lamps and jewelry. The artifacts range in period from Hellenistic to Islamic. While much more needs to be done to help Libya in protecting its heritage, the publication of the Red List will hopefully help the United States from becoming a market for these crisis antiquities.

The Antiquities Coalition adds its support for the preservation of Libyan cultural heritage, and salute our colleagues at ICOM for their rapid publication of the Red List.